RED PSALM (1971)

This was written in the summer of 2000 for a coffee-table book edited by Geoff Andrew that was published the following year, Film: The Critics’ Choice (New York: Billboard Books). — J.R.

A recent documentary about communist musicals called East Side Story (Dana Ranga, 1997) assumes that communist-bloc directors were just itching to make Hollywood extravaganzas and invariably wound up looking strained, square, and ill-equipped. But Red Psalm (1971), Miklós Jancsó’s dazzling, open-air revolutionary pageant, is a highly sensual communist musical that employs occasional nudity as lyrically as the singing, dancing, and nature. That is to say, within its own specially and exuberantly defined idioms, it swings as well as wails.

Set near the end of the 19th century, when a group of peasants have demanded basic rights from a landowner and soldiers arrive on horseback to quell the uprising, Red Psalm is composed of only 26 shots. (With a running time of 84 minutes, this adds up to an average of three minutes per shot. Jancsó’s earlier feature from 1969, Winter Sirocco, is said to consist of only 13 shots.) Each long take is an intricate choreography of panning camera, landscape, and clustered bodies that constantly traverse, join, and/or divide the separate groups.… Read more »

ASHES AND DIAMONDS (1958)

This was written in the summer of 2000 for a coffee-table book edited by Geoff Andrew that was published the following year, Film: The Critics’ Choice (New York: Billboard Books). — J.R.

Set in a small provincial town in Poland the day after the country’s liberation in the spring of 1945, Ashes and Diamonds, Andrzej Wajda’s third film, may still be the most influential of his career. Yet, curiously, its impact both today and some 40 years ago seems predicated in part on the slightly anachronistic effect produced by superimposing the mid-fifties over the mid-forties — specifically, existential angst laid over a gloomy sense of exhaustion at the end of the war.

Above all, the black-leather-jacketed figure of Zbigniew Cybulski as Maciek, an uncertain resistance assassin — clearly derived from the Marlon Brando of The Wild One (1954) even more than  the Brando of On the Waterfront from the same year, or the James Dean of East of Eden, and Rebel Without a Cause from the following year — reinvented postwar Poland in hipster terms. And the resulting image of the actor (who died prematurely in a railroad accident less than a decade later) was fixed in the popular imagination for good.

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Tashlinesque

The following was commissioned by and published in Frank Tashlin, edited by Roger Garcia and Bernard Eisenschitz, Éditions du festival international du film de Locarno, 1994. — J.R.

“According to Georges Sadoul, Frank Tashlin is a second-rank director has never done a remake of You Can’t Take It With You or The Awful Truth. According to me, my colleague errs in mistaking a closed door for an open one. In fifteen years’ time, people will realize that The Girl Can’t Help It served then — that is, today  –  as a fountain of youth from which the cinema now — that is, in the future — has drawn fresh inspiration ….To sum up, Frank Tashlin has not renovated the Hollywood comedy. He has done better. There is not a difference in degree between Hollywood or Bust and It Happened One Night, between The Girl Can’t Help It and Design For Living, but a difference in kind. Tashlin, in other words, has not renewed but created. And henceforth, when you talk about a comedy, don’t say ‘It’s Chaplinesque’; say, loud and clear, ‘‘It’s Tashlinesque’.

Jean-Luc Godard’s review of Hollywood or Bust in the 73rd issue of Cahiers du cinéma (July 1957) is founded on a frank prophecy, only a small part of which has come true.… Read more »

Ten Favorite Offbeat Musicals

Published by DVD Beaver in March 2006; I’ve updated several links.  — J.R.

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Consider the following not so much a definitive list — offerings and preferences keep changing — as a starting point for checking out some of the weirdest and most pleasurable musical comedies in my personal pantheon. The order is chronological.
(CLICK COVER FOR MORE)Love Me Tonight (Rouben Mamoulian, 1932) A controversy used to rage about whether this was “imitation Lubitsch with too many camera angles” (as Andrew Sarris once put it) or a lighthearted send-up of Ernst Lubitsch (as Tom Milne argued in his book on Mamoulian). Since the movie costars Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald, the same leads as Lubitsch’s previous The Love Parade and The Smiling Lieutenant, and Lubitsch himself was production chief at Paramount when it was made, these issues can’t be resolved simply. But my own preference for this masterpiece over the Lubitsch films that influenced it comes easy, and not only because it’s appeared on DVD ahead of them. It has a wonderful Rodgers and Hart score and a singular impulse to encompass nothing less than the entire world in its musical numbers. Towards the beginning, “Isn’t it Romantic?” passes from Chevalier (a tailor in Paris) to a customer to a composer passing on the street to a cab driver to soldiers on a train to a Gypsy fiddler in the countryside to MacDonald singing on a distant balcony; and plenty of non-singers are allowed to take over bits of subsequent songs, like the reprise of “Mimi”.

Take Two: THE 5,000 FINGERS OF DR. T.

The principal source of this article — written for American Film, and published in their October 1978 issue — was a fairly lengthy phone conversation I once had with Theodor Seuss Geisel (1904-1991), better known as Dr. Seuss, when I was living in San Diego. More specifically, this happened while I was teaching in the Visual Arts Department at the University of California, San Diego, and booked The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. for one of my film classes. I can no longer call whether this was for my course called Paranoia or for one of Raymond Durgnat’s classes that I took over for him after he unexpectedly and rather mysteriously returned to London in the middle of a quarter. (He was also a big fan of the film.)

 

Geisel, the main auteur of the film (at least as I saw it), also lived in San Diego, and hoping that he could come to the class as a guest lecturer, I managed to get ahold of his address and wrote him a letter. By way of replying with a friendly refusal, Geisel called me one day at the house in a Del Mar canyon that I was subletting at the time (along with filmmaker Louis Hock and, for the time he was around, Ray Durgnat) and politely begged off, explaining that his relation to this movie was rather traumatic.Read more »

A Short Note on Béla Tarr

Written for a Persian collection about Béla Tarr, published in May 2016. — J.R.

 

Damnation

My first encounter with the work of Béla Tarr was Damnation (1987), seen in 1989, followed soon afterwards by Almanac of Fall (1984), but the point at which I became an acolyte rather than a mere fan was Sátántangó (1994), which remains for me the towering pinnacle of his work.  Other favorites include The Turin Horse (2011) and his nearly impossible-to-see short film The Last Boat (1989), but I know plenty of other viewers who were first won over by Werckmeister Harmonies (2000), and another good starting point might be Tarr’s 1982 production of Macbeth (1982), made for Hungarian television in only two shots.

Damnation

Most of his films qualify as black comedies filmed in black and white, spiritual without being religious and peopled most often by grubby and not especially honorable individuals who are followed with lengthy takes and elaborately choreographed camera movements that implicate the viewer in their activities and thwarted destinies. Starting with Damnation, they are mostly written by the great Hungarian novelist László Krasznahorkai, whose endless and labyrinthine sentences in his novels are as relentless and as passionately serene as Tarr’s camera movements.… Read more »

Deep in the Tarr Pit [THE TURIN HORSE]

From Film Comment (September-October 2011). — J.R.

Recalling the incident in Turin that reportedly occasioned Friedrich Nietzsche’s final breakdown into madness — his weeping and embracing a cab horse that was being beaten by its driver for refusing to budge — Béla Tarr’s regular screenwriter, novelist László Krasznahorkai, has noted that no one seems to know or ask what happened to the horse. But The Turin Horse is only nominally concerned with this riddle. It’s more concerned with the horse’s driver and his grown daughter, who live in a remote stone hut without electricity, subsisting on an exclusive diet of potatoes and palinka (Hungarian fruit brandy) while a perpetual storm rages outside, then arbitrarily subsides, over a carefully delineated six days. Their abject life remains fixed by a few infernal routines, such as dressing, undressing, drawing water from a well, or looking out the window. (One exterior shot of the daughter doing just that towards the end of the film will haunt me the rest of my life). What passes for plot gradually becomes even more minimal by the driver’s horse first refusing to pull the wagon, then refusing to eat.… Read more »

Lost in Auschwitz [SON OF SAUL]

From the Chicago Reader (January 28, 2016). — J.R.

Son of Saul ****

Directed by László Nemes

 

“The sense of being lost is what we wanted to convey. That is what was missing before [in most earlier movies about the Holocaust]: one individual being lost.” — László Nemes to Andrea Gronvall, Movie City News

sonofsaul

László Nemes’ Hungarian debut feature, Son of Saul, opening this week at the Music Box, is easily the most exciting new film I’ve seen over the past year, and a casual look at the prizes and accolades it’s received over the past eight months, starting with the Grand Prix and the FIPRESCI prize at Cannes, shows that I’m far from alone in feeling this way. Even my colleagues who dislike or dismiss the films concede that it’s a stunning technical achievement. But the moment one starts to describe what the film does, or even what it’s about, a certain amount of dissension sets in.

 

Nemes and his lead actor Géza Röhrig have consistently described their intentions as wanting viewers to experience viscerally and as accurately as possible what Sonderkommando members went through in Auschwitz in October 1944. These were the Jewish prisoners obliged to lead other Jews into the gas chambers, search their clothes for valuables before, during, and after they were being gassed, and then dispose of their bodies — carting them off, burning them, and then shoveling away their ashes, receiving in return slightly better food and quarters before eventually being exterminated themselves.… Read more »

Commercial Correctness

I can happily report that some portions of the following–which originally appeared in the December 24, 1993 issue of the Chicago Reader—are out of date, because all the films reported here as unavailable (I Want To Go Home, The Decalogue, The Lovers of Pont-Neuf) have subsequently become available. —J.R.

We all know what political correctness is–though the nuances of the term may vary depending on whether you’re inside or outside academia and whether or not you regard it as exclusively the preserve of the left. (Personally, I consider Rush Limbaugh and Andrea Dworkin both charter members of the club.) Commercial correctness in movie ideology, however, has yet to be defined, even though it currently engulfs both the entertainment industry and the audience.

Political correctness can be defined as the demand by members of an oppressed minority—or at least those like Limbaugh who consider themselves equivalent to members of an oppressed minority—to be treated with respect. Commercial correctness, on the other hand, can be defined as the demand of members of a reigning majority—or at least those who consider themselves equivalent to members of a reigning majority—that minority works and positions be treated without respect. The goal of commercial correctness, in fact, is to ignore, impede, and eliminate these works and positions—to remove them from the face of the planet as efficiently and unobtrusively as possible.… Read more »

My Filmgoing in 1968: An Exploration

This essay was written for That Magic Moment: 1968 Und Das Kino Eine Filmschau, a film program and publication organized by the Viennale and Stadtkino in late May and early June, 1998. Like some of the other pieces reproduced on this site as featured texts, this has various passages that have been recycled elsewhere in my work — in this case, both in the Chicago Reader and in my book Movie Wars – but it still seems worth reprinting, chiefly for its personal reflections on film history and, more generally, the 60s. — J.R.

My Filmgoing in 1968: An Exploration

by Jonathan Rosenbaum

In 1968, the year I turned 25, I bought my first appointment book — or at least the first appointment book that I’ve bothered to save, and I’ve saved all 30 of the appointment books that I’ve bought and filled since then. For the most part, I use these appointment books to list appointments of various kinds: meetings with friends, planned trips to other cities and countries, classes I plan to teach or lectures I plan to attend or deliver. But most of the entries concern films I plan to see and when or where they’re playing.… Read more »

Letter from Chicago

This was written in early 2003 for Trafic no. 46, their summer issue, where it was translated into French by Jean-Luc Mengus, their managing editor. It’s part of a very wide range of “letters” from cities around the world that they’ve been running for many years. It’s very sad to report that Alexis A. Tioseco, whom I’d recommended to the magazine as the perfect person to write their “Letter from Manila,” was in the middle of fulfilling that assignment when he was murdered. — J.R.

Letter from Chicago

Dear Trafic,

Approaching my 60th birthday and the sort of self-definition that stems in part from the various places I’ve lived, I’ve recently noted that I’ve been anchored in the same place for roughly the first quarter of my life (Florence, Alabama) as well as the past quarter (Chicago).  Yet it seems equally significant that two-thirds of the remaining half of my life have been spent in New York, Paris, and London, where the world is measured and perceived quite differently from the ways it’s encountered in either Florence or Chicago. This includes the world of cinema, which has figured for me as a distinctly separate entity when viewed from the separate vantage points of these five localities.… Read more »

The Color of Paradise

From the Chicago Reader (January 16, 1998). — J.R.

Jour de fête

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed by Jacques Tati

Written by Tati, Henri Marquet, and Rene Wheeler

With Jacques Tati, Paul Frankeur, Guy Decomble, Santa Relli, and Maine Vallee.

Every Tati film marks simultaneously (a) a moment in the work of Jacques Tati; (b) a moment in the history of French society and French cinema; (c) a moment in film history. Since 1948, the six films that he has realized are those that have scanned our history the best. Tati isn’t just a rare filmmaker, the author of few films (all of them good), he’s a living point of reference. We all belong to a period of Tati’s cinema: the author of these lines belongs to the one that stretches from Mon oncle (1958: the year before the New Wave) to Playtime (1967: the year before the events of May ’68). There is hardly anyone else but Chaplin who, since the sound period, has had this privilege, this supreme authority: to be present even when he isn’t filming, and, when he’s filming, to be precisely up to the moment — that is, just a little bit in advance. Tati: a witness first and last.Read more »

One-Man Armada [on Luis Buñuel]

From the Chicago Reader (November 10, 2000). — J.R.

 

Films by Luis Buñuel

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

It seems to be universally agreed that Luis Buñuel (1900-1983) is the greatest Spanish-language filmmaker we’ve ever had, but getting a clear fix on his peripatetic career isn’t easy. The authorized biography, John Baxter’s 1994 Buñuel, isn’t available in the U.S., and the deplorable English translation of Buñuel’s autobiography, My Last Sigh (1983), is actually an unacknowledged condensation of the original French text. Better are an interview book translated from Spanish, Objects of Desire, and a recently published translation of selected writings by Buñuel in both Spanish and French, An Unspeakable Betrayal, which includes his priceless, poetic early film criticism.

A more general problem is that Buñuel is not only “simple” and direct but full of teasing, unresolvable ambiguities. A master of the put-on, he often impresses one with his earthy sincerity. A political progressive and unsentimental humanist, he was also, I’ve learned from Baxter, an active gay basher in his youth, and those who’ve read the untranslated but reputedly fascinating memoirs of his widow report that he was a very old-fashioned and prudish male chauvinist throughout his life. He was a onetime devout Catholic who lost his faith in his youth and was fond of exclaiming years later, “Thank God I’m still an atheist!” Yet Orson Welles, who never met him, may have had a point when he said, “He is a deeply Christian man who hates God as only a Christian can, and, of course, he’s very Spanish.… Read more »

Good Clean Trash [SCANDAL]

From the Chicago Reader (May 5, 1989). — J.R.

SCANDAL

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Michael Caton-Jones

Written by Michael Thomas

With John Hurt, Joanne Whalley-Kilmer, Bridget Fonda, Ian McKellen, Leslie Phillips, Britt Ekland, Daniel Massey, Roland Gift, and Jeroen Krabbe.

After applauding some of the forthright aspects of High Hopes and other recent English movies in this space two weeks ago, I’m happy to find my generalizations confirmed by a new English docudrama on the John Profumo-Christine Keeler sex scandal of 30 years back. Scandal, the first movie made on this subject, is good, clean, licentious fun.

While the titillating aspects of the story automatically place the film under the general rubric of “trash,” Scandal gleefully embraces its category without being unduly dumb or irresponsible about it. Starting off with an evocative period montage of the late 50s and early 60s, accompanied by the strains of Frank Sinatra’s recording of “Witchcraft,” the movie proceeds to unravel its complex narrative with a kind of polish that excludes any pretense of telling the “whole” story. (The project started out as a five-hour miniseries, and got boiled down to a feature after the BBC decided not to participate, but it is questionable whether the entire story could have been told even at miniseries length.) As a result of the film’s deliberate incompleteness, we can’t entirely account for all the motivations of the two leading characters — Dr.… Read more »

Trying to Have Some Fun (QUILLS, SMOKING, & NO SMOKING)

From the December 15, 2000 issue of the Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Quills

***

Directed by Philip Kaufman

Written by Doug Wright

With Geoffrey Rush, Kate Winslet, Joaquin Phoenix, Michael Caine, Billie Whitelaw, Patrick Malahide, and Amelia Warner.

Smoking

***

Directed by Alain Resnais

Written by Alan Ayckbourn, Jean-Pierre Bacri, Agnès Jaoui, and Anne and Georges Dutter

With Pierre Arditi and Sabine Azéma.

No Smoking

***

Directed by Alain Resnais

Written by Alan Ayckbourn, Jean-Pierre Bacri, Agnes Jaoui, and Anne and Georges Dutter

With Pierre Arditi and Sabine Azema.

Quills is an American adaptation of an American play about the famous 18th-century French libertine the Marquis de Sade, starring Australian, English, and American actors. It is also, in part, an unacknowledged mainstreaming of a more intellectual German play that became famous in the mid-1960s because of an exciting and inventive staging by avant-garde English director Peter Brook — Peter Weiss’s The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade, popularly known as Marat/Sade. (Brook’s 1966 film adaptation of this intensely theatrical play is a pale shadow of the original.)

Smoking and No Smoking – not a double bill but a pair of interactive features that can be seen in either order, both playing at Facets Multimedia Center this week — are French adaptations of a cycle of eight mainly comic English plays by Alan Ayckbourn.… Read more »